This time of year can be really hard for some people. I have friends who abhor everything to do with Christmas. Some hate the commercialization and commoditization of goodwill, while others detest the idea of spending time with family members they don’t connect with at any point during the rest of the year and have little in common with anyway. Others have recently lost someone they love and perhaps the joy of the holidays went with them. And I think some just hate being slapped in the face with “Silver Bells” at every turn.
I, for one, have always loved Christmas. For that, you can credit my mother, who is equal parts Martha Stewart and Paula Deen when it comes to holiday celebrations. Since I can remember, this season has been punctuated with magic. Cookies and treats as far as the eyes could see, all brought to life by our hands and with the help of my great grandmother’s heavy, sunshine-yellow mixing bowl. Velvet stockings hung over the fireplace opposite a towering fir, draped in no less than 200 twinkling lights. Hot cocoa made fresh on the stovetop as spicy Chex mix browned in the oven. You gotta hand it to the woman. We aren’t – and never have been – a rich family. I’m sure plenty of my friends received more in monetary value of gifts but with her knack for smart shopping and a love for beautiful and elaborate gift wrapping, our tree always ended up looking like something that should be in Macy’s, with its voluminous bows and stacks of packages.
But as we grow older, some of the magic dies. The Santa bomb drops and people stop trying so hard to protect you from the reality that life can be crappy; and it doesn’t stop just because it’s Christmas. Uncles act like selfish assholes. Grandfathers die and leave you hopelessly lost. Casseroles get burned. Grandmothers fall and get hurt. Your sister uses the fact that her (adorable, but flea-ridden) new dog isn’t able to come in the house like your brother’s dog to draw a parallel between the two of them and point out how unloved and marginalized she is by everyone. And the whole time, your Dad is hyperventilating because there is so much wrapping paper and glittery ribbon on the floor that he just vacuumed. It becomes exhausting, the fight to wrench all the spirit out of the month of December.
These last few years have seen me reluctantly grappling with the reality that I can’t make those early days come back. I have sunk my claws in, refusing to let go of the idea that I can give our family a picture-perfect Christmas. We have always picked our tree out the day after Thanksgiving but we usually wait a few weeks before hauling it in and decorating it. Not this year. This year, my brother and I dragged it onto the porch—under the watchful and controlling, backseat driving eyes of my father, whose bum knees now make the task impossible for him—just a few days after Thanksgiving. And I strung the lights on just a day later before heading back to New Orleans. We did this for my mother. We did it for her because of all those years she’s done it for us. We did it for her because she is dying.
I don’t mean immediately (at least I hope not), but she has been very sick for quite some time with a disease that doctors know little about. It is an immune system disorder that typically lies dormant in a person’s body until effecting an organ system or two, at which time they have to learn to be careful about limiting their public exposure during times called “crisis.” But it’s different for my mom. Very few of her organ systems remain unaffected by the disease. She has been in “crisis” for months now. Being in public is dangerous for her and a cold that I would shrug off in a few days could be her undoing. She is constantly tired and often has trouble keeping food down. She has bad days and better days. Sometimes the better ones make it easy to pretend the bad ones are gone; but it seems to make it even more heart wrenching when they return. No one is more frustrated or infuriated by this than my mother, a woman who was always active and driven, who raised three children while managing a successful career as a nurse. She’s angry that she always feels like sleeping but if she pushes herself too hard, the results can be devastating.
So all the baking and decorating we used to do together has fallen mostly to me in the last few years. She helps when she feels good but I think she hates herself for not being able to do more. I only hate that things can’t be like they once were. That I can’t turn back the hands on the clock and be 10 years old again, powdered sugar dusting my hair, dancing around our tiny kitchen to the decadent croon of Harry Connick Jr. My dad says we should get a fake tree or a smaller real one. But that isn’t Christmas to us. It isn’t always easy to shoulder so much of the load but I will always work my hardest to give her the best Christmas I can, because she deserves it. And because I don’t know how many we have left.
It may sound morbid, but it’s something we as a family have had to face and are working to, begrudgingly, accept. Barring a medical miracle (which I still hope and pray for on a daily basis), my mom probably won’t bake Christmas cookies with my children. I worry – often – about standing alone in a river of tears on my wedding day, wishing she was there. Or needing her advice the first time my kid tells me they hate me but not being able to pick up the phone and call. Sometimes this fear manifests itself in unhinged rage. Rage at God. The universe. Other people. I hear people talk badly about their mothers and I have to resist the urge to punch them in the throat – or more twisted than that, wish my mother’s illness on their mom. Why can’t this happen to a mom that deserves it? Other times it manifests as pure panic and the inability to comprehend how I can live in a world in which my mother doesn’t exist. How, in fact, will the world continue to spin once she’s gone? It is, frankly, terrifying and sometimes debilitating.
On the other hand, I realize my fortune. I know many people have not felt, and sadly may never feel, the kind of love my mother has shown me in my 28 short years on this earth. It is my mother who introduced me to music, took me to my first concerts, encouraged my writing and made me realize I could make my passions into a career. She also introduced me to New Orleans, a city that would welcome, embrace and forever change me, gift me with my fiercest friends and bring me together with the love of my life. She held my hand strolling through the French Quarter as a child and 18 years later, she took out a massive loan to help pay for a top-notch college education my family really couldn’t afford, because she wanted me to get out of my tiny hometown and experience the world. She wanted that for me, despite never being able to have it for herself. She has sacrificed every day of her life for me. I only hope I can manage to be a pale echo of that kind of mother to my own kids one day.
So you can hate Christmas. Or you can love it. Just please take a few moments this December to stop and reflect, as this time of year is good for, on all you have and all you love. My sincere hope is that each of you reading this has found, or will find that kind of love in your lifetime. Whether it comes from a parent, grandparent, sibling, friend or partner, we are all deserving of it. And we are all capable of giving it in turn.
There is a song in one of my favorite childhood holiday movies (the somewhat obscure but endlessly endearing Jim Henson made-for-TV movie, Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas) that has always made me cry. Perhaps it’s the association with my beloved grandfather, gone almost 14 years now. Or perhaps it’s just the truth of the lyrics. I can’t help but feel saddened and yet encouraged by the line: “Though our minds be filled with questions, in our hearts we’ll understand / When the river meets the sea” I don’t know when I will have to say goodbye to my mother. I hope with all my heart that it’s decades away. But regardless of when it happens, I want her to go knowing what an amazing legacy she leaves behind. And how indebted I will always be to her. If you have someone in your life that has done that for you, go tell them that this instant. Because it’s never a bad time to say I love you.